Circumstantial evidence is proof of a fact or set of facts from which one could infer the fact in question. For example, that a suspect is seen running away from a murder scene with a weapon in hand is circumstantial evidence he committed the murder. This contrasts with direct evidence, which directly proves the fact in question. An eyewitness who testifies to seeing the suspect shoot the victim is direct evidence.
Both direct and circumstantial evidence are considered legitimate forms of proof in federal and state courts. A person may be convicted of a crime based on circumstantial proof alone. And indeed, with the prevalence of mistaken identification and false testimony, inferential proof is oftentimes thought to be even more reliable than direct proof.
In trials for criminal cases, the prosecution commonly relies on circumstantial evidence. Defense lawyers typically respond with one of two strategies. The first is to cast doubt on the circumstantial proof itself. If the premise(s) are not proven, then the inference should not be drawn.
The second is to show that even if all the circumstantial facts are true, they lead to two or more reasonable conclusions. And at least one of them is consistent with the defendant being innocent. In other words, there is reasonable doubt as to whether the accused is guilty.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:
- 1. What are some examples of circumstantial evidence?
- 2. How does circumstantial evidence differ from direct evidence?
- 3. Can a person be convicted with just circumstantial evidence?
- 4. What are the best defense strategies in these cases?
- 5. Is circumstantial evidence used in California criminal court cases?
1. What are some examples of circumstantial evidence?
Circumstantial proof means evidence that does not directly prove a key fact. Rather, this type of evidence:
- proves another fact, and
- a person can then reasonably conclude that a key fact happened.1
Example 1: Paco testifies that he saw people walking into a shopping mall with wet hair and wearing raincoats. This is inferential proof that it was raining.
Example 2: Nia was the victim of a robbery and the police think they caught the robber. At the defendant’s trial, Nia testifies that she was robbed by a guy wearing a blue t-shirt. Another witness testifies that he saw the defendant running away from the scene of the crime wearing a blue shirt. This is all circumstantial proof of the defendant’s guilt of robbery.
Example 3: A prosecutor charges Jason with shoplifting. The State believes he took a leather jacket from a department store. At Jason’s trial, a friend testifies that she saw him wearing a similar looking jacket at a party. This is circumstantial proof that Jason shoplifted the coat. Note that the testimony is different than if the friend said she was with Jason in the store (crime scene) and saw him take it.
Physical evidence, forensic evidence, or fingerprint evidence can also be circumstantial proof. It is like a smoking gun.
2. How does circumstantial evidence differ from direct evidence?
Direct proof is evidence that directly proves a key fact.2
It is often in the form of eyewitness testimony in which a person says he/she:
- saw an accused commit a crime,
- heard another person say a certain word or words, or
- observed a certain act take place.
Unlike circumstantial proof, a jury does not have to make reasonable inferences with direct proof. They can conclude a key fact happened simply by believing the witness.
Example 1: A witness testifies that it was raining outside. This personal knowledge is direct proof to show that it was raining.
Example 2: Lorie is suspected of embezzling funds from her employer. A co-worker, Craig, signs a statement confessing that he helped Lorie with the offense. This is direct proof that shows Lorie is guilty of embezzlement.
3. Can a person be convicted with just circumstantial evidence?
Criminal law does allow prosecutors to convict a defendant using just circumstantial evidence.
In fact, this proof is not considered to be inherently less reliable than direct proof. Just like direct proof, a prosecutor can use the former to prove or disprove:
- the elements of a crime,
- the existence or completion of certain acts, and
- the intent or mental state of the defendant.3
As to the latter, note that some crimes require the prosecution to prove that:
- the defendant committed a certain act, and
- he did so with specific intent or mental state.
Examples of these offenses are:
- murder, in which the defendant needs to have acted with “malice aforethought,”4 and
- burglary, for which the defendant needs to have intended to commit a felony or theft.5
For these crimes, a prosecutor can use circumstantial evidence to prove an accused’s mental state.
Example: Daniel is caught red-handed trying to break into someone’s house. In order to convict him of burglary, though, the prosecution needs to show that he intended to steal items from the house once inside.
The prosecution introduces evidence that Daniel drove to the house in a rented moving van. He could have used it to haul away items stolen from the house. The prosecution also introduces testimony from a friend of Daniel’s. The friend says that Daniel had been talking about desperately needing money.
These two pieces of evidence are circumstantial proof that Daniel intended to steal from the house after he entered it.
4. What are the best defense strategies in these cases?
There are two smart legal strategies a defense attorney can use when:
- a prosecutor uses circumstantial proof, and
- does so as the only proof of guilt.
The first strategy is for the lawyer to show that:
- the evidence supports reasonable conclusions, and
- these conclusions are separate from a finding of guilt.
Example: Jane is suspected of killing her ex-boyfriend, Doug. At her murder trial, Doug’s neighbor testifies that he saw Jane at Doug’s home on the night of his death. The D.A. also introduces proof of Jane’s fingerprints inside Doug’s house. Both pieces of evidence are inferential proof that makes Jane seem guilty of murder.
But Jane’s defense attorney can argue that such evidence supports another conclusion. That being, that Jane visited Doug at his home right before someone else killed him. He was sick and had no one else to turn to for care. So, Jane stopped by to make sure he was okay.
The second strategy is to show that the evidence is not reliable.
Example: Sophia is charged with criminal trespass for going on Pam’s property. The prosecutor supports the charge with testimony from a witness that saw someone of Sophia’s shape and size on Pam’s land. But this testimony comes from a person with terrible eyesight that was not wearing glasses when he/she saw the figure.
Here, a defense attorney could urge the D.A. to drop the charge since the proof of guilt is unreliable. It is inferential proof that comes from a witness with bad eyesight.
Both of the above strategies work so as to negate the idea that:
- a defendant committed a crime, and
- did so beyond all reasonable doubt.
5. Is circumstantial evidence used in California criminal courts?
Yes, it is admissible in all state and federal courts. It is frequently used in California criminal trials. It can also be used in civil cases.
As suggested above, California law gives this evidence the same weight as direct proof.6
Note that State law requires the judge to instruct the jury in some of these cases. This means the judge has to explain the meaning of the two types of evidence when:
- a prosecutor uses inferential proof, and
- does so to prove any element of a charge.7
For additional help…
- Black’s Law Dictionary, sixth edition.
- See same.
- See, e.g., CALCRIM No. 223 Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2017 edition).
- See, e.g., California Penal Code 187a PC.
- See, e.g., California Penal Code 459 PC.
- CALCRIM No. 223
- See same. See also People v. Ibarra (2007) 156 Cal.App.4th 1174; and, People v. Livingston (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1145.